TBI probe started to answer allegation of wrecker kickbacks

A Tennessee Bureau of Investigation probe was started last week after a Blount County commissioner said a constituent claimed that her high tow bill was because the towing company had to pay a commission to the sheriff.

The comments were made during a Blount County Commission workshop on March 11. Commissioners were questioning Assistant Chief Jimmy Long regarding the sheriff’s towing policy. Near the end of that discussion, Wendy Pitts Reeves said she had spoken with a constituent, a friend of hers, who had a family member involved in a single vehicle wreck. They had used Blount Wrecker before and had paid $75. The second time, however, the same towing company charged her $300, Pitts Reeves said.

Pitts Reeves said there was no police action in the wreck but that it involved a young person not driving well.

“In this particular case, what was interesting was that the parents in this particular case were upset because of the difference in fee. It was the same company they had used before and they were, ‘Why in the world are you charging me $300 something?’ and what this driver said to them was that, ‘We have to pay the sheriff’s office a commission.’”

Long countered, “That’s not true.”

Reeves said, “Okay, well you need to know that there are people out there that are saying that.”

Long denied that that the sheriff’s office charges commissions to tow companies and asked for the name of the tow driver who made that claim. Reeves said she didn’t know the name of the driver.

Long said he understood that Pitts Reeves was just passing on information. “But I have an issue with anybody that claims that,” he said.

Pitts Reeves denied she brought the allegation up as a personal attack. “I don’t mean anything about the sheriff’s office at all,” she said during the meeting.

Following the meeting both Berrong and County Mayor Jerry Cunningham independently took the issue to District Attorney Mike Flynn and requested he ask the TBI to investigate.

After the meeting, Cunningham said that when Pitts Reeves mentioned the allegation, he felt it was serious and that the appropriate way to proceed would be with an investigating agency. “The commission floor is not the proper place to look into this matter but rather a criminal investigative agency. The only way to ferret this out as to whether it is true or false is through an investigation with an agency like TBI or the FBI,” he said.

The mayor said that when he heard the allegations, he felt sure the sheriff wasn’t involved but felt an investigation was warranted nonetheless. “Now that the investigation has started, I’m sure they will be interviewing a lot of people in regard to it.”

According to a Blount County Sheriff’s Office press release, the office currently uses seven towing services in Blount County that rotate out on a weekly basis. The only exception to this is Butler’s Wrecker Service. Butler’s, who by agreement with the other towing services, is assigned to Zone Four -- south of Sevierville Road and east of Montvale Road. This area includes Walland, Townsend, and part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Cades Cove. Butler’s Wrecker Service is not part of the weekly rotation. The rotation system started in the early 1990s following Sheriff Berrong’s entry into office as part of his effort to make the Blount County Sheriff’s Office a professional agency, the release said.

Twice a year - in January and July - towing companies that are interested in being part of the weekly rotation, submit an application. Any company that meets state standards is added to the rotation.

“Commissioner Reeves is accusing me and the sheriff’s office of illegal and unethical conduct,” Sheriff Berrong said. “I am appalled and personally offended by these accusations. In fact, my predecessor was removed from office and prosecuted by federal authorities for similar conduct. Neither I nor anyone in our department has ever taken a commission or any other payment from a wrecker service. I have personally requested a TBI investigation because I strongly suspect these allegations by Commissioner Reeves are politically motivated without any factual basis. This has become a pattern of conduct by Commissioner Reeves. Upon completion of the TBI investigation, we will then address Ms. Reeves’ false and slanderous remarks.”

In a telephone interview on March 18, Pitts Reeves said that after hearing of one resident’s concern for a high towing bill, she remembered her experience with one of her constituents and the comment about paying the sheriff a commission.

“It seemed like a good time to find out. I had not taken action (on the request) but when this person came and talked to us about the ice storm, it caught my attention. I was looking for any information and wasn’t trying to accuse anybody of anything,” she said.

“It never occurred to me -- this sounds naïve -- but if I thought it was illegal, I wouldn’t have asked about it in that forum. I assumed it was an accepted practice,” she said, referring to the resident’s allegations that wrecker services paid the sheriff’s office a commission. “I was just passing on information that had been given to me by people in the public.”

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